Hindu Funerals: Rituals, Customs & What to Wear

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If you’re new to the concept of Hindu death rituals or Indian funerals, or are an active participant brushing up, there are some important guidelines to consider.

After all, respecting tradition is perhaps most essential at a few distinct points in a person’s life—birth, marriage, and, of course, death.

Jump ahead to these sections: 

Familiarizing yourself with Hindu prayers and customs will ensure the funeral is a success and honorable to loved ones lost. Once death is imminent or has occurred, it’s encouraged to recite Hindu prayers and consider the solace of the family. 

COVID-19 tip: If you're planning a virtual Hindu funeral using a service like GatheringUs, you can still adapt many of these Hindu traditions, like chants, prayers, and traditional music, to include your online guests. Brainstorm with your funeral director, event planner, or religious leader to help you figure out the logistics or any limitations.

Preparing for a Hindu Antyeshti

There are three key parts to Hindu death rituals: the wake, cremation, and the Shraddha. At the wake, any loved ones or well-wishers may attend. At the cremation, those who share the Hindu faith may attend, or immediate family. The Shraddha is an additional ceremony that’s generally more open. 

Notifying others of death

Once death is imminent, it’s important in the Hindu faith to notify family, friends, and others so that they can effectively show their love and support. 

The typical Hindu memorial service doesn’t take place during the day of the cremation. Instead, there’s an open casket wake prior to the cremation. Other family, friends, and well-wishers may attend the cremation. An additional celebration or memorial service may be planned at a later date that’s convenient for attendees. 

Planning cremation within 24-48 hours

Responsible family members should plan to ensure that the cremation goes well, and takes place within 24-48 hours. Depending on whether the deceased person is a male or a female, parameters vary. 

During the ceremony, a chosen family member transfers powers to the Kartaa, the person actually performing the rites. Cremation should occur sometime between sunrise and sunset, and not beyond that. 

If the person is a male, the preferred family members to facilitate the cremation include, in order: eldest son, eldest of the next available sons, grandson (son’s son), adopted son, grandson (daughter’s son), wife, daughter, younger brother, brother’s son (eldest to youngest available), father, elder brother, mother, daughter-in-law, sister, sister’s son, son-in-law, friend.

If the person is a female, the preferred family members to facilitate the cremation include, in order: eldest son, eldest of the next available sons, grandson (son’s son), adopted son, grandson (daughter’s son), husband, daughter, husband’s younger brother, husband’s brother’s son, eldest to youngest available, husband’s father, husband’s elder brother, husband’s mother, daughter-in-law, husband’s sister’s son, friend.

If the preferred family members cannot make it to the cremation in time, the next closest relative should attend.

Embalming or burials are not in accordance with Hindu funeral tradition. Cremation practices have a long history in India and were originally reserved for high-status Hindus but eventually grew in popularity. 

What Happens During a Hindu Funeral (Antyeshti)

As described prior, a Hindu funeral occurs in 3 parts, beginning with an open-casket wake, followed by cremation, as well as the Shraddha.

Location and duration

Funeral services may last a shorter amount of time, about two hours, or up to four hours. They will likely take place at a funeral home or other facility that is capable to perform the cremation after the open-casket wake. Here are some tips for finding a good funeral home.

Who’s in attendance

Beyond the Kartaa, Hindu funerals should be filled with other loved ones, friends, and neighbors of the deceased person and his or her family. The family shouldn’t be left alone during this difficult time, as company serves as a necessary support system. 

However, it’s typical to only include those who share the Hindu faith in the cremation portion of the funeral rites, and may even be made up of just close family. 

Rituals and customs

There are some specific items needed to complete a Hindu cremation. Gather these items without delay from a Temple, an Indian grocery store, local priests, or friends. They may not all be available from one source, so punctuality is important.

 A few of these items include plain rice, sesame seeds, sandal paste, a matchbox, 4 cow dung patties, ghee, 30 coins, some string, and more. 

At the commencement of the ceremony, the chosen person should hand over 2 or 3 Kusha (Darbha) to the Kartaa. Hindus believe Kusha or Darbha grass has purifying properties and is a channel of Lord Vishnu’s power.

The Kartaa should keep the Kusha tied to his clothes and keep them tied until the end of the ceremony. This ritual symbolically authorizes the Kartaa to perform the rites on behalf of the person who is entitled to perform the rites.

Notable chants, prayers, or songs

There are bound to be several notable Hindu prayers performed during the ceremony. Your relationship to the deceased person will determine your participation, as the prayer or chant may occur during private, immediate family practices. However, for those of the Hindu faith, it’s typically expected to partake in the chanting of mantras throughout the event. 

One notable Sanskrit verse is recited after the body is washed and placed in clean clothing, prior to cremation that translates as such:

“Wealth will remain buried, cattle will remain in the pen, (his) wife will accompany (him) to the doorway, friends will accompany him to the crematorium, the body will come till the funeral pyre, but on the path to the next world, the jiva goes alone (with his karmas).”

When the ashes are immersed, another key moment, individuals performing the immersion should chant: 

“Naarayana…. Naarayana…. Naarayana.”

Hindu Funeral Service Etiquette 

To respect those lost in Hindu families, there are certain customs, particularly regarding attire, that should be kept in mind. There are some best practices when it comes to funeral etiquette as well. 

What to wear

In traditional funeral services, it’s common to wear either black or muted colors and to keep the attire on the dressier side. Unless, of course, the deceased person has wishes for specific dress or left it up to the wishes of guests. 

In Hindu services, no black shall be worn, as it’s considered inappropriate. Instead, attendees should wear white and dress conservatively and women should cover their arms and knees. Opened-toed shoes are acceptable and jewelry is also allowed but should be kept to a minimum. 

Behavior and mood

Though the family of the deceased person may mourn, as expected, the Hindu outlook on death is one of practical optimism. They believe that a person’s soul is part of a bigger picture, and lives on through reincarnation. Regardless, it’s important to be respectful of the family’s and the deceased person’s wishes. 

Money, gifts, and other presents 

It’s not expected to bring food to a Hindu wake but flowers are welcomed. After the family’s mourning period is over, perhaps if you’re invited to the immersion ceremony, you may bring fruit. 

Post-Antyeshti Practices and Customs

Following the above events that make up a Hindu funeral, there are other practices to come. 

Spreading of ashes and immersion

The day after the cremation, it’s typical for the family to receive the ashes in some sort of container. A preferred vessel is either earthenware or copper and is called a Kalash. It’s important not to bring the ashes into the family home and instead keep them somewhere safe outside, such as in the garage. The container should also not be taken to any temple. 

The family may choose to bring the ashes to India and immerse them in the Holy Ganga or at pilgrimage centers such as Haridwar. Haridwar is viewed as the gateway to the two holy shrines of Shiva and Vishnu. 

If the ashes can’t be taken to India, they may also be immersed near the family’s home in the United States, for example, in any flowing river or ocean. Hindus believe that all sources of water are sacred. There may be certain regional regulations to watch for, however. 

The immersion should preferably occur on the 10th day after death and be performed by the same chosen family member that assisted in the cremation. The immersion should not occur on a Friday. 

Prior to immersion, milk and Ganga jal should be poured into the Kalash. When the vessel or ashes are being immersed, a chant is recited, as described in the above section. After the immersion has taken place, the person(s) who performed it should shower. 

Mourning period

The third part of Hindu rituals after death includes something called the Shraddha, which is typically a ten day period of mourning. Those in the family are not permitted to attend their normal temples or places of worship and likely take time off of work. This is because they are believed to be spiritually impure during this time.   

Outlook on death

One of the reasons for stringent funeral rites and cremation practices is to help the “being” separate itself from the body and break the bond between the two, called the runanubandha. This also explains why the ashes should be kept outside the home prior to immersion. If any runanubandha is preserved, the living individuals may suffer a life of derangement, suffering, or a lack of peace. 

Though the physical evidence of the person is destroyed and immersed in a body of water, Hindus believe that you should cherish, preserve, and celebrate the psychological memory of the person. 

After all, Hindus believe that the soul has no beginning and no end, and, depending on the applicable karma, will undergo reincarnation in some way. Karma is essentially the summation of good and bad choices over one’s lifetime. If the soul of the deceased person has reached the true nature of reality, it will reconnect with the Brahman or the “One.”

Support is Important at a Hindu Funeral

Now that you have a better idea of what to expect at Hindu funerals, there are a few key things to keep in mind. Show support to the family, pray for them and the deceased person if you feel compelled, and stay on top of Hindu funeral planning, if need be. 

There will be less stress for you and more peace of mind for your loved ones the better prepared you are, either as a planner or an attendee.


Sources

  1. “Funeral Ceremony Guidance.” Association of United Hindu & Jain Temples. May 2014. http://bit.ly/2mbzA3C
  2. “Antyeshti.” Hindu American Community Services Inc. 2015. http://www.hacsiusa.org/useful-information/antyeshti/
  3. Arnold, David. “Burning Issues: Cremation and Incineration in Modern India.” NTM vol. 24,4 (2016): 393-419. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5357291/
  4. “Haridwar.” Sacredsites.com. https://sacredsites.com/asia/india/hardwar_haridwar.html
  5. “Why Do We Immerse the Ashes of the Dead in the Ganga?” Isha Institute of Inner Sciences (USA). 2 Feb 2019. https://isha.sadhguru.org/us/en/wisdom/article/immerse-ashes-dead-ganga
  6. Jayaram, V. “Death and Afterlife in Hinduism.” Hinduwebsite.com. https://www.hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/h_death.asp

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